The Barack Obama of jazz, oozing all the style of Sinatra

‘A bourbon. Make it a double. Couple of cubes.” It’s two in the morning, and the bar in Kurt Elling’s Copenhagen hotel is staying open late just for us. Elling thanks the waiter for being so amenable, then he turns to me. “If only more people were like that,” he says.
I’m not meant to be here, sipping whisky after-hours with Elling. Our interview had been arranged for 8am the following day, but, figuring that that would be an ungodly hour for a jazz artist, I’d barged backstage after Elling’s storming show with the local Klüvers 18-piece big band and asked him whether he’d prefer to chat after the show. He did. “Saturday night won over Sunday morning,” he says.

That pretty much sums up the story of Elling’s life. He was brought up in a religious family: his father was the director of music in a Lutheran Church in Rockford, the third biggest city in Illinois. Elling, now 43, studied for a masters in the history of religion at Chicago’s Divinity School and could have been a cleric himself, if jazz hadn’t claimed him. “I would have been an unhappy priest,” he says. “I’m too much of a rule-breaker.”

And claim him jazz certainly did. On the night we meet, apart from a rapturously received concert, Elling has just received the first finished copy of his new album The Gate, which looks likely to propel him out of the hermetic jazz circles in which he has been a revered figure for more than a decade. The New York Times says he is “the stand-out male vocalist of our time”; fellow jazz musician Jamie Cullum says he loves Elling’s “swooning, Sinatra sound combined with an intellect for words”.

Elling excels at the jazz sub-genre of “vocalese” singing, with new lyrics written over the melodies of classic instrumental solos. His very first recording, in 1995, was immediately picked up and released by the Blue Note label; his last record, Dedicated to You, won a Grammy. Every year for 11 years, Elling has topped the prestigious Downbeat poll for best male jazz singer – an achievement he plays down, with characteristic modesty, by pointing out that the competition for male vocalists is less stiff than it is for women.

The title of his new record, The Gate, refers, he says, to “little moments, the portals of the sacred that appear in everyday life”. It’s smoothly produced by Don Was, known for his work on albums by the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. As well as a few original songs, and a version of Blue in Green by Miles Davis, there’s a strong British showing, with Norwegian Wood by the Beatles, Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out, and even a surprisingly lyrical cover of Matte Kudasai by prog-rock titans King Crimson.

It’s becoming something of a trend among the top American jazz artists of Elling’s generation to cover British songs: singer Cassandra Wilson has performed Beatles covers, and pianist Brad Mehldau has reworked numerous Nick Drake and Radiohead songs.

“I’m not saying the American songbook is dead,” Elling remarks when I point this out to him, “but it would be a bore to be a museum piece and ignore all those interesting chord changes and fabulous new creativity that has come along in the last few decades, especially from the UK.”

In his performances and in person, Elling is an oddly appealing mix of thoughtful priest-philosopher and old-style hipster. Samurai Cowboy, a song he wrote for The Gate on the subject of thinking, includes the lines: “Shooting a rapid-fire sparkle-chemical in the atmosphere…Descartes was right, you dig”.

He sees similarities between a jazz gig and a church service: “When they are done right, both can be transcendent rituals”. That didn’t stop Elling’s parents being initially horrified at his choice of career. “They assumed jazz clubs would be full of gangsters, drug dealers and prostitutes. They had a provincial view they got from old movies.”

Despite his lack of gangster credentials, Elling keeps getting compared to Frank Sinatra – for his smooth baritone, for the easy way his voice dances around the metre, for his charismatic ability to front a big band, and, not least, for his ability to look good in a sharp suit. “Looking good is part of the jazz tradition, things like not sitting down because that wrinkles the knees.”

For Elling, however, the similarities end there. “Sinatra was a swing singer. A real jazz singer, as I see it, would have been more innovative and pushed the boundaries. For someone to see me as Sinatra’s successor means they don’t really have a hipper context. But, if they want to be put me in the same bag, that’s flattering – and I’d love the pay cheque.”

The jazz life isn’t treating him too badly, though. Elling drives a top-of-the-range Mercedes, and lives with his ex-dancer wife and daughter in the upmarket Chicago suburb of Hyde Park, in a condominium he bought from Barack Obama, whom he knows: “We talk about Coltrane and the big names.”

I suggest that Elling is, in fact, the Obama of jazz – fundamentally a bit of a nerd, but liberal, charismatic and, when the spirit moves him, in possession of an unusual ability to move an audience.

“Obama’s a high-minded and courageous guy, so that’s a compliment,” he says, and orders another bourbon.